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January & February 2002 Feature

From Slavery to Freedom
Preserving the Records of the Freedmen's Bureau

Reginald Washington
Staff Archivist

freedmen work on Edisto Island, SC
Freedmen work on the James Hopkinson plantation on Edisto Island, SC. (64-CN-8971)

In the years following the Civil War, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (Freedmen's Bureau) provided assistance to tens of thousands of former slaves making the transition from slavery to freedom. The bureau issued food and clothing, operated hospitals and refugee camps, established schools, helped freedmen legalize marriages, supervised labor contracts, and worked with African American soldiers and sailors and their heirs to secure back pay, bounty payments, and pensions. The records are a rich source of documentation for the black experience in America for the second half of the 19th century. Historians and scholars have long used Freedmen's Bureau records to study the social and economic conditions of blacks and the Federal Government's policies toward them following the Civil War. In recent years, more and more African American genealogists and family historians, with a great deal of frustration and varying degrees of success, have attempted to use the records for ancestral research.

NARA has microfilmed selected records of the Freedmen's Bureau's Washington headquarters, state assistant commissioners, and superintendents of education, but many of the records of the bureau's local field offices, where most individuals came in contact with the bureau, have not been filmed. Consequently, researchers across the nation who seek access to the records must visit the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. This limited access has added to researcher frustration, and with frequent handling, the original records have become increasingly fragile. Another problem has been the lack of personal name indexes among the bureau's files that allow easy access to the records when searching for freedmen and their families. In the absence of such indexes, researchers can spend countless hours searching through records that may or may not contain information about their ancestors.

On November 6, 2000, President Clinton signed the Freedmen's Bureau Records Preservation Act of 2000. The act authorized the appropriation of $3 million to microfilm more than 1,100 linear feet of field office records of the Freedmen's Bureau (Record Group 105) in the custody of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). In November 2001, Congress appropriated the first installment—$450,000—in NARA's fiscal year 2002 budget. At the end of the project, all textual records in Record Group 105 will be on microfilm. Prior to the passage of the Freedmen's Bureau Preservation Act of 2000, NARA and the University of Florida entered into an agreement to microfilm Freedmen's Bureau records for the State of Florida. Under the agreement, the University of Florida will provide the funds for filming, and volunteers from NARA's Civil War Conservation Corps will prepare and process the records. The project involves the filming of some 41 series of records totaling more than 12,000 images and will be done by the end of the year.

The Florida project will serve as a model for the overall plan and give NARA an opportunity to determine what types of records series are most suitable for indexing. While NARA will microfilm these precious records to preserve them from deterioration, partner institutions will be responsible for creating automated indexes.

The larger plan to microfilm all Freedmen's Bureau field office records, which will be completed in stages, is projected to take more than 5 years. NARA will start with records for Alabama, and then proceed in alphabetical order with Arkansas, Delaware and Maryland, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Once the project is completed, copies of microfilm will be made available at each of NARA's Washington-area and regional microfilm facilities and will be offered through the National Archives Microfilm Rental Program. Also, copies of microfilm will be made available at no cost to nonprofit groups and educational institutions that want to partner with NARA to develop automated indexes to the records.

In a press conference held last year at Howard University during African American History Month, John W. Carlin, the Archivist of the United States, spoke on the importance of the passage of the Freedmen's Bureau Records Preservation Act of 2000 and NARA's commitment to making Freedmen's Bureau records more accessible. Carlin remarked, "We at the National Archives and Records Administration are planning important steps to preserve these fragile and irreplaceable records and provide the widest access to them."

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